Analyzing the UN State-Building Process in East Timor.

Chogwu Enape
12 min readJul 25, 2020

The United Nations began peacekeeping operations in East Timor in 1999 and these operations ultimately culminated in their independence from Indonesia, in 2002. The breakdown of the mandates for the missions deployed to East Timor reveals a state-building process that was to be implemented strategically, to enable East Timor to become a fully functioning and independent state. State Building can be defined as “efforts to either reconstruct or establish for the first time, effective and autonomous structures of governance in a state or territory where no such capacity exists or where it has been seriously eroded” (Caplan, 2005). This means that the core of the UN missions to East Timor was the establishment of strong institutional pillars of government that would serve East Timor in its capacity as an independent state.

State-building is required when an established state fails to deliver its functions and exists in an operational limbo causing violent and humanitarian crises, however, as was the case in East Timor, it can be required to establish an entirely new state. Following the timeline from the first state-building mission in 1999 till 2005, the central question for this paper is: was the state-building process a success or a failure? To answer this, the first part of the paper will briefly discuss the origin of the conflict and give a brief overview of the missions deployed by the UN in East Timor to give an idea of how the state-building process began. The second part will focus on the two missions that dealt primarily with state-building and analyze their operations based on the elements of state-building to determine the extent of the progress made by the UN.

The Origin of the Indonesian- East Timor Conflict.

In 1975, the Portuguese ended their colonial domination in East Timor but without any strong institutions in place, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia and claimed as an Indonesian territory for 25 years. At first glance, one would think that the invasion stemmed from the shared history of Indonesia and East Timor under their respective colonial administrations because there was no East and West Timor before colonization. Timor was an undivided Island however, in a classic ‘divide and rule’ move following a conflict, a treaty was signed between the Dutch and the Portuguese colonial administrators, dividing the Island. “This treaty gave the western portion to the Netherlands and the eastern portion to Portugal. Eventually, the Netherlands gave up its colonies in the Dutch West Indies, including West Timor, giving birth to Indonesia” (Whitman, 2004). So, after the exit of the Portuguese, Indonesia decided to ‘take back’ East Timor and repudiate the division. Another underlying factor and most probable motivation for this move was East Timor’s natural resources. Nevertheless, “East Timor was a non-self-governing territory within the meaning of Article 73 of the UN Charter” (Benzig, 2005). It had become a nation of its own and this invasion led to decades of conflicts between different factions of the Timorese people who were for and against the proposal to be integrated into Indonesia, and the Indonesian troops causing humanitarian crises of such proportions that captured the eye of the international community.

Figure 1. Map showing Timor Island: West Timor (Indonesia) and East Timor (World Map1 n.d).

Brief Overview of the UN Peacekeeping Missions in East Timor

The United Nations Peacekeeping mission in East Timor lasted for 13 years: from 2009 until 2012. During that time, a total number of 5 different missions were established. The missions include The United Nations Missions in East Timor (UNAMET), The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), The United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET), The United Nations Office in East Timor (UNOTIL) and The United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT). “Beginning in 1982, at the request of the UN General Assembly, regular talks were held with Indonesia and Portugal aimed at resolving the status of the East Timor territory” (UN, 2002). In 1999, the first UN mission to East Timor was deployed. This mission dealt primarily with holding a referendum to determine the minds of the Timorese regarding integration or independence from Indonesia. “The poll on 30 August 1999 was largely peaceful, with a 98.6 percent voter turnout. An overwhelming 78.5 percent of East Timorese voted in favour of independence” (Howard, 2013). Following this result, pro-integration militants began a violent conflict that warranted the intervention of a coalition of security forces under the UN-mandated International Forces for East Timor (INTERFET). This marked the beginning of the evolution of the UN mission in East Timor. However, regarding state-building, the United Nations Transitional Administration and the United Nations Mission of Support are of primary importance.

The State Building Missions in East Timor

The two missions that focused entirely on State-building are the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor and the United Nations Mission in Support of East Timor. State-building is generally categorized into two phases- the initial building process and the transition process. UNTAET carried out the initial state building while UNMISET focused on the transition to the Timorese government.

The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET)

The United Nations Transitional Administration was established on “25th October 1999 by UN resolution 1272(1999)” (UN, 2002) and it was the most important UN mission in East Timor as its mandate embodies state-building elements that ultimately guided East Timor towards independence in 2002. “It had the overall responsibility for the administration of East Timor and was empowered to exercise all legislative and executive authority, including the administration of justice” (UN, 2002). It was the second mission deployed by the UN to implement the result of the referendum administered by the first mission to East Timor, UNAMET. It consisted of “9150 militaries, 1,640 police, 1,670 international civilian staff (including 486 UN volunteers), and 1,905 local staff” (Howard, 2013) all from various contributing countries such as the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Australia etc. The United Nations Transitional Administration was tasked with standing in as an interim government or administration and setting up institutions and operating as a normal State government. “Its mandate consisted of the following elements: to provide security and maintain law and order throughout the territory of East Timor, to establish an effective administration, to assist in the development of civil and social services etc.” (UN, 2002). This strategy employed by this mission was a modern-day form of governmental trusteeship that lasted the span of two years. “The structure of UNTAET included three main pillars: 1) military peacekeeping; 2) governance and public administration; and 3) humanitarian assistance and emergency rehabilitation” (Howard, 2013). The mission oversaw the return of refugees, established various decision making transitional administrations, reintegration of combatants into the official military of East Timor, the reform of the legal system, the buildup economic infrastructures etc. “On the 31st of August 2001, a 99-member constituent assembly was elected and tasked with drafting the constitution and establishing frameworks for elections and transition to full independence. The constitution came into force on the 22nd of March 2002” (UN, 2002). On 14th of April 2002, the first president of East Timor was elected. In May that same year, East Timor became a fully independent state. To avoid a sudden cold turkey withdrawal that would have been counterproductive, the United Nations decided to establish the third mission in East Timor.

The United Nations Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET)

The United Nations Mission in Support of East Timor was established by “Security Council Resolution 1410 in May 2002 and its mandate included: provision of assistance to core administrative structures, interim law enforcement and public security and the development of East Timor Police Service” (UN, 2006). Compared to UNTAET, this mission was smaller, regarding the scale of operation and the number of staff even though the size of the operation was still significant with “1250 civilian police and initial military troop strength of 5,000, including 120 military observers” (UN, 2006) all from various contributing countries e.g. Argentina, Egypt, USA, Zimbabwe etc. UNMISET was tasked with handling the gradual process of complete takeover by the East Timorese administration, of all sectors including security to ensure a smooth transition that would ensure stability in all sectors. Going by the mandate, the mission focused on police and security reform to ensure stability and curtail internal and external threats, development of skills and capabilities of Timorese personnel’s and institutional building. “The UN presence in East Timor was scaled down in 2005 and UNMISET ended its mission on May 20th, 2005” (Blanco, 2015).

The Successes of the State-Building Missions in East Timor

The United Nations State-building efforts in East Timor have been hailed as one of the most successful UN operations. Perhaps, one of the contributing factors to this notion is that the state building missions did not lack legitimacy under international law. Territorial administration is a sensitive issue and East Timor was a unique case because East Timor was not yet a state. However, all the UN missions deployed to East Timor were backed by security council resolutions and the relevant chapters of the UN charter e.g. Chapter VII. Furthermore, East Timor did not have any recent history where the government was controlled by Timorese because they went from centuries of colonization to forceful occupation. This made the UN missions, especially difficult because there was no foundation to fall back to. The state-building operations and activities carried out by The UN missions, especially UNTAET and UNMISET contributed greatly to the functioning of East Timor as an independent state as well as part of the International System. Despite the numerous obstacles that the missions had to deal with, UNTAET and UNMISET managed to fulfil their respective mandates. “UNTAET launched a programme called “The future of democracy in East Timor”, targeting a broad cross-section of East Timorese society and promoting civic education on constitutional development, the rule of law, as well as political education” (Ofstad, 2012). Apart from providing civic education, UNTAET also implemented reconciliation programs such as the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation that dealt with “investigating and reporting on serious crime and conducting reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of lesser crimes. It was established on 15 July 2001, started in February 2002 and operated till October 2005, outlasting UNTAET and UNMISET” (Ofstad, 2012). UNMISET, on the other hand, faced a lot of security challenges from anti-independence insurgents nevertheless, “the strength of the bilateral relationship between UNMISET military group and the Indonesian Army minimized potential difficulties” (Norrie, 2015) and so the mission could maintain relative peace and security. In September 2002, shortly after East Timor gained independence, it was admitted into the United Nations General Assembly as the 191st State. “UNTAET took several steps to re-create a legal system, including reinstating the primacy of the pre-August 1999 law (minus the elements that contravened basic human rights), setting up a UN-run incarceration facility; providing international training for local police etc.” (Howard, 2013). UNMISET continued to carry out police training and other administrative activities that marked a gradual transfer of power from the United Nations to the Timorese government. By the end of the missions, various sectors had been revived and were up and running. “There was the redevelopment of the agricultural sector, water and sanitation services, power stations were built, enrollment in schools was significantly higher and five hospitals and 64 community health centres had been built, with another 25 centres in progress” (Howard, 2013). At the end of the day, all the facilities required to ensure a smooth governmental process were in place and the transition from the UN administration to the Timorese administration was also successful.

The Shortcomings of the State Building Missions in East Timor

Shortly after the end of UNMISET’s mandate, violent conflict broke out in East Timor in 2006 that caused several deaths and led to a refugee crisis. It was almost as if someone knocked out the foundation from underneath East Timor and everything came crashing down. “The crisis started when 159 Timorese soldiers signed a petition, to President Xanana Gusmão, complaining about discrimination-particularly regarding, salaries, promotions and accommodation-against westerners Timorese” (Blanco, 2015). This crisis exposed a good number of loopholes in the UN missions, including the failure to abide by the three pillars of state-building: Political settlements, essential capabilities and expected capabilities and the lack of local ownership.

Political settlements usually include peace agreements that spell out the terms and conditions for moving forward. “It is the deeper understanding between elites that bring about the conditions to end the conflict, but which also prevents violent conflict from occurring” (Whaites, 2008). At this level, the legitimacy and accountability of the would-be government are cemented. The UN state-building missions ignored this step and did not incorporate the political history of East Timor into the new government system. The principal parties in conflict before the UN intervention were not properly reconciled and because of this, the Timorese government lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the part of the population that felt sidelined. “During the crisis, it was evident that part of the political and the security elite saw it as a political opportunity to “augment their claim to power, vent their frustrations, or indeed protect themselves” (Blanco, 2015).

The essential Capabilities, which is instituting a way for the state to survive and it includes “the maintenance of security across the territory, establishment and maintenance of the rule of law and collection of revenue to finance state functions” (Whaites, 2008). At this level, the government’s ability to deliver an enabling environment for socio-economic prosperity is dealt with. To an extent, the United Nation was able to fulfil this goal as evidenced by the growth in the various sectors such as the Agricultural sector however, the justice system was severely lacking and the reform of the security sector cannot be considered a success. “The police had several former Indonesian police officers, and even military, in its organization, the army had as its very core, former Timorese guerrilla men” (Blanco, 2015). Both had fought on opposite sides during the resistance and so there was constant friction between the two.

Finally, the expected capabilities, which is basically what the populations come to expect from a functioning state, was not achieved. It includes “developing and managing the conditions for economic growth and basic service delivery and livelihood security” (Ingram, 2010). To be able to achieve this, one must take local ownership into account. “Local ownership is based on the principle that the reforms of security policies and other institution-building activities in a given country must be designed, managed and implemented by domestic actors rather than external actors” (Powles, 2016). The state-building process in East Timor failed to incorporate all sectors of the local population into the formulation, planning and implementation aspects of institutional building. This left the population with a sense of distrust for the system which they considered foreign. This is the main reason for the other failures because had the local population been included not just as docile participants, but as active contributors, the political and traditional history of the Timorese would have been taken into consideration and incorporated into the state-building process. The UN approached the issue from “a developmental rather than reformist agenda” (Powles, 2016). This is to say that they came in with the idea of building a state from scratch with only western views and ideologies completely disregarding the local population.


The state building process in East Timor has been hailed as a success, but East Timor can be considered as a hallmark case study full of lessons for future UN missions. In all of this, one can safely state that the UN used a peace-keeping method to approach a state-building process which should not have been the case. Nevertheless, the fact that East Timor gained independence from Indonesia and was subsequently admitted as a full member state of the United Nations is no small feat. Even though there are shortcomings in the entire mission, East Timor does not have any particular issue that is alien to most countries today. This means that overall, the UN’s mission in East Timor and the importance of the role they played cannot be trivialized.


Benzing, M. (2005). Midwifing a New State: The United Nations in East Timor. Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law Online, 9(1), 295–372. doi:10.1163/138946305775160429

Blanco, R. (2015). The UN peacebuilding process: an analysis of its shortcomings in Timor-Leste. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 58(1), 42–62. doi:10.1590/0034–7329201500103

Brady, C., & Timberman, D. G. (2006). The crisis in Timor Leste: causes, consequences and options for conflict management and mitigation. Retrieved from USAID website:

Caplan, R. (2005). Introduction. In International governance of war-torn territories: Rule and reconstruction (p. 3). Retrieved from

Howard, L. M. (2013). State Building through neotrusteeship — Kosovo and East Timor in comparative perspective. United Nations University UNU-WIDER world institute for development economic research, (126), 14. Retrieved from

Ingram, S. (2010). State-Building: Key Concepts and Operational Implications in Two Fragile States — The Case of Sierra Leone and Liberia A joint initiative by the world bank’s fragile and conflict-affected states group (opcfc) and united nations development program’s bureau for crisis prevention and recovery (BCPR) (pg.5). The World Bank.

Macqueen, N. (2015). United Nations Mission in Support of East Timor. In J. A. In Koops, T. In Tardy, & P. D. In Williams (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of United Nations peacekeeping operations (p. CH 58). Retrieved from

National Institute for Security and Sustainability. (n.d.). United Nations missions in Timor-Leste (East Timor) | Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. Retrieved from

Ofstad, O. (2012, April). Reconciliation and conflict resolution in East Timor. Retrieved from Pg. 9

Powles, A., Partow, N., & Nelson, N. (2016). local ownership in the security sector space: lessons from Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands. In United Nations, peacekeeping challenge: The importance of the integrated approach (p. chpt. 15). Retrieved from

UN- UNMISET. (2006). UNMISET: United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor — Background. Retrieved from

UN- UNTAET. (2002, May). UNTAET. Retrieved from

United Nations. (2002, May). UNTAET Chronology. Retrieved from

Whaites, A. (2008). States in Development: Understanding State Building (pg.7). Retrieved from DFID website:

Whitman, R. (2004). Conflict in East Timor. Retrieved from

World map. (n.d.). East Timor Map [Map]. Retrieved from



Chogwu Enape

Researcher, writer, and the ultimate idealist. One day I moved to Paris and many things have happened to me since then.